Bubble Mentality: Rinse and Repeat

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I read both of these stories back-to-back in recent editions of The Detroit News. Story #1 on the theft of electricity:

On a recent sunny morning, Mark Johnson, head of DTE’s (Detroit Energy) revenue protection unit, drove through east-side Detroit neighborhoods pointing out illegal electric hookups.

At a complex of 12 apartments on Whittier in Detroit, all of the meter boxes had been opened and rigged with wires that span the bare connectors and allow power to flow into the units without being measured.

“That’s 240 volts going through wires that are barely heavy enough to power a light switch,” says Johnson, whose 61-man crew dismantles up to 500 illegal hookups a day. “If someone brushes up against that box, they’re gone.”

Recently, two fatal fires in Detroit are blamed on illegal (and dangerous) electrical hookups. A quote from the same article:

“These deaths are traced directly to your door,” Maureen Taylor, chairwoman of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, wrote to DTE in February, in demanding that utility shutoffs end. “DTE has been abusing low income people, seniors and disabled persons.”

The message? If one can’t pay for the services, they should get them free. According to this story, utility theft has become rampant, and this has brought on a necessity for a 61-person crew to cruise Detroit neighborhoods, daily, looking for theft. This crew may tear down up to 500 illegal hookups per day. In an area where there is 15% unemployment and over 30% unemployment in the city, rising electricity theft is not surprising.

But what is surprising is this story that posted the same week: “Greektown Casino Posts Record Revenues.”

March’s $33.48 million boost was a 9 percent improvement over the same period a year ago and capped the casino’s best-ever quarter. Greektown posted a record $91.9 million in revenues for the first quarter of this year, compared with $81.7 million for the same period in 2009.

What are the reasons for the big upswing in throwing money away gambling? An “improving economy” and “more urban customers.” It seems that these numerous unemployment extensions are good for somebody … somewhere. I think perhaps I have observed that revenues are indeed going up. I work right across from the Greektown casino, and on weekday mornings there are often lines of cars wrapping around the block — at 7:30 or 8am — as people are trying to get into the casino garage to spend their last unemployment pennies. Plenty of folks, it seems, still have their MasterCards turned on and their limits intact. The Greektown casino is in bankruptcy by the way, and has been in bankruptcy for two years.

In an anecdotal sense, after about a year or two of spending apprehension, semi-frugality, and all-around belt tightening, I am seeing people return to their former habits — borrow, spend, blow, accumulate. Rinse and repeat. A year ago, the malls were emptying out, the Starbucks that were left open were sporting empty parking lots most of the time, and the local Best Buy parking lot was actually yielding some available spaces. I had noted that our local Whole Foods became more easily navigable, and hordes of bubble businesses were closing up. Things were tightening up all over.

Now, all of that is changing. Crowds are surging again, and at places where you’d least expect it. A year ago I walked right into my nail salon and got taken care of without a wait. Now they have a waiting list you sign when you walk in, and there are a half-dozen ladies (and men) ahead of me, so I have to leave and come back. The malls and specialty stores are crowded again. Inventory is piling up on new car lots. I see new Mom-and-Pop business establishments opening up — taverns, restaurants, and lots of ‘specialty’ businesses. This week I went to the mall and saw, lo and behold, there was a brand new bubble business in the mall — designer cupcakes! I blogged about this hilarious fad a few months ago. This was a cupcake kiosk called Happy Belly’s Bakery. There were $3 and $4 and $5 cupcakes — just the right kind of business for a state with 15%+ unemployment that keeps extending benefits to the perpetual leeches. The Detroit News recently reported that the cupcake craze is “prepared for a long stay.” The same was once said about Cold Stone Creamery, the adult pajama/cereal parlor, and the adult peanut butter-and-jelly restaurant chain.

All of this means that while the government has been artificially propping up the economy and “stimulating” it through artificial means, peoples’ perceptions of economic life have been transformed into that which was intended by the central planners: the economic crush is over, our government cured all the problems, things are great again, go back to your old ways. Rinse and repeat.

5:51 am on April 25, 2010